No Real Experiences: Authenticity for Social Marketers

Sunsets, Yosemite and Burning Man—what the hell is authenticity? Icon from The Noun Project.

Search for “Authenticity” on the Harvard Business Review, and you’ll get 701 search results. On Amazon, some 165,000. In business literature, authenticity can be considered its own sub-genre. It’s no surprise then that it’s also a favourite subject among cultural critics and political philosophers.

Authenticity is a revealing concept: by exploring it, we uncover the complex relationship between market capitalism and our sense of self. Authenticity is directly related to that hallmark feeling of FOMO, or fear of missing out, a common sensation when navigating a social network. Authenticity is the defining characteristic of brands in the “experience economy,” and it is what every marketer goes in search of when trying to appeal to millennials.

Yet authenticity is contested. It’s a paradox. To be authentic is to be real, to be an individual, and to be free. Some say that it’s impossible to manufacture: authenticity is natural, a characteristic of people who are being their truest selves. It isn’t the fake smiling of those trying to get ahead but the warm smile of someone who truly cares about you. It isn’t the manufactured landscape of Disneyland, it’s a small rural community in the south of France where you finally felt at home. To try to be authentic is to contrive authenticity away. How then are social marketers to make sense of it? How can it be helpful to you?

Introducing Authenticity

The concept of authenticity has a long and rich history. In early Christian thought, one had to reject the baseness of the external world and turn inward in order to realize the higher truth of god. In the same way that the word “vocation” (originally used to denote a calling to the priesthood) was adopted by corporate America to signify a profession synonymous with one’s identity, authenticity was appropriated from Christian thought to express an exceptional inward experience of something that felt true.

In the 1960s and 70s, it was the hippies who best exemplified authenticity. By rejecting society, and “the mainstream,” these young men and women fled to communes in the desert, seeking to construct utopian societies based on universal human values. The clockwork of authenticity informed Donald Draper of Mad Men when he turned away from the demands of Madison Avenue — however briefly — in order to achieve inner peace through meditation and mindfulness.

Emotionally stunted and socially repressed, ad man Donald Draper turns to meditation in order to find himself. Photograph: Justina Mintz / AMC

Wherever one sees a rejection of the external demands of society, and an embracing of some inner truth that leads toward self realization, authenticity is there. It is familiar to us in the stories of lifestyle entrepreneurs who have rejected the demands of the 9–5 in order to achieve “real” success. It is the resurrection of the corporate worker worn out by the working world but unable to reject, or think beyond, what made it so appealing in the first place.

Authenticity is a worldview, and it is the worldview of corporate America, in which commercial experience and genuine experience are thought to be distinct. One yearns for experiences outside of the commercial because one has already ceded all experience to it. But the space outside of the commercial — the authentic — is never truly obtainable. It subsequently becomes an unstoppable force for selling products: “if only I had a motorcycle, I could be free from this world of rules and consumerism.” Authenticity is a trick that convinces you of an imagined sickness so that it, and only it, may provide the cure.

Can experiences feel as real as they look?

That some experiences are real and others fake is the central conceit of authenticity rhetoric. Authentic experiences are perceived only in memory, in media, or in images, after a flattering application of the synthetic. Actual experience is too chaotic, too immediate to be evaluated on these terms. When we experience, we merely experience.

Working Toward Authenticity

Because human beings do not have authentic or inauthentic experience (they merely experience), it is brands who are or are not authentic. In practice, authenticity is about the construction of a relatable and realistic self image. As Joseph Pine notes in his interview with the HBR, “if [your] offering reaches inside of us and strikes a chord that creates a sympathetic vibration, that says, yeah, that’s what we’re about, that’s an offering that they identify with, then they’re going to view it as authentic.”

One’s messaging has to be realistic, but not necessarily true. That is, authenticity has more to do with the sensation of realness as created by living up to the expectations of your audience as it does with communicating actual truths. Pine’s coauthor, Jim Gilmore, uses the rather crass example of bringing a SIGG water bottle to a TED talk, knowing full well that the suggestion will be that he believes in climate change (he’s a bit of a skeptic). While I do not recommend doing anything contrary to the values that you really do hold — not least because it’s dishonest — it’s important to understand that authenticity is about self image and not necessarily about who you, or your CEO, really are.

Living up to the expectations of your audience is about understanding how they currently perceive you, how your values are currently being communicated, and being critical in your interpretations of how you are being presented. Dissident or cynical interpretations often provide the richest material for understanding.

Joseph Pine’s authenticity criteria as explored in his TED talk, “What Consumers Want.”

Elsewhere, Pine explores authenticity with reference to two criteria: whether an organization is what it says it is, and whether it is true to itself. If you’re a family values company, that means staying away from selling with sex. How you are perceived now limits how you can be portrayed in the future, and an understanding of these limitations, and how they must be negotiated, is the first step to authenticity. After that, it’s a matter of strictness in your messaging — about staying true to that image, and it’s history, and not allowing your goals, commercial or otherwise, to get in the way of it.

What is Authenticity in Social Marketing?

Authenticity should be employed by social marketers as a veto principal. Every piece of messaging, every marketing strategy, or initiative, should be filtered through the idea of who your audience thinks that you are. You’ll need to be disciplined and strict in your application of the principal, or else you’ll fall short. Authenticity is excellence in marketing — you can’t allow yourself to break character.

Authenticity is best expressed through transparency, humour and values-based messaging. Transparency content, as I’ve explored elsewhere, is content that gives a behind-the-scenes look into the daily operations, psychological or business challenges, of your business. Lifestyle goods company, Need/Want, is excellent at this. By walking us through the trials, tribulations and revenue numbers of their many spin off businesses on their company blog, Need/Want shows themselves to be authentically aligned with their audience of web designers, developers and entrepreneurs who themselves are interested in starting small spin-off businesses. Add to this that much of the company’s messaging is powered by the personal brands of the two millennial cofounders, individuals who make a point of the Eames originals and Apple products beloved by their audience, and you have a perfect recipe for an authentic brand.

Authenticity can also be triggered on a regular basis through content that has a sense of humour, and a reflexive self awareness. This is where a working understanding of how one is perceived pays dividends. Poking fun at oneself, or displaying an understanding of those less than charitable interpretations, is an excellent way of performing your authentic self-image.

Finally, authenticity can be created by showing your values rather than telling them. This can be through image-based content that shows that you live the lifestyle that your organization purports to value or through contributions to causes that you know your audience really cares about. The point here is to make sure that you are taking real steps towards showing your values, rather than merely talking about them.

Authenticity is about navigating your existing brand with critical self awareness. It isn’t about being twee, or about doing yoga, or about being associated with some edgy youth sub culture, but about good, consistent writing that isn’t at odds with what your audience already thinks of you. It’s about projecting an image of self that is relatable and realistic, and makes your audience see something in you that they want to see in themselves.

The jaded millennial response to the question of “how should one be authentic” is to dismiss the question as absurd. One either is or is not. But authenticity is about the stories that we tell about each other and about ourselves — stories which are written by human hands, deliberately, and often for someone’s benefit. That the process of writing authenticity is often obscured by those for whom it comes naturally does not diminish the fact that it is artifice. For good marketers, writers, and brand consultants, it may come naturally, but for the best, it is entirely constructed.

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